An Agricultural Testament

by Sir Albert Howard

Chapter 10
Some Diseases of the Soil

Soil Erosion

PERHAPS the most widespread and the most important disease of the soil at the present time is soil erosion, a phase of infertility to which great attention is now being paid.

Soil erosion in the very mild form of denudation has been in operation since the beginning of time. It is one of the normal operations of Nature going on everywhere. The minute soil particles which result from the decay of rocks find their way sooner or later to the ocean, but many may linger on the way, often for centuries, in the form of one of the constituents of fertile fields. This phenomenon can be observed in any river valley. The fringes of the catchment area are frequently uncultivated hills through the thin soils of which the underlying rocks protrude. These are constantly weathered and in the process yield a continuous supply of minute fragments in all stages of decomposition.

The slow rotting of exposed rock surfaces is only one of the forms of decay. The covering of soil is no protection to the underlying strata but rather the reverse, because the soil water, containing carbon dioxide in solution is constantly disintegrating the parent rock, first producing sub-soil and then actual soil. At the same time the remains of plants and animals are converted into humus. The fine soil particles of mineral origin, often mixed with fragments of humus, are then gradually removed by rain, wind, snow, or ice to lower regions. Ultimately the rich valley lands are reached where the accumulations may be many feet in thickness. One of the main duties of the streams and rivers, which drain the valley, is to transport these soil particles into the sea where fresh land can be laid down. The process looked at as a whole is nothing more than Nature's method of the rotation, not of the crop, but of the soil itself. When the time comes for the new land to be enclosed and brought into cultivation agriculture is born again. Such operations are well seen in England in Holbeach marsh and similar areas round the Wash. From the time of the Romans to the present day, new areas of fertile soil, which now fetch £100 an acre or even more, have been re-created from the uplands by the Welland, the Nene, and the Ouse. All this fertile land, perhaps the most valuable in England, is the result of two of the most widespread processes in Nature -- weathering and denudation.

It is when the tempo of denudation is vastly accelerated by human agencies that a perfectly harmless natural process becomes transformed into a definite disease of the soil. The condition known as soil erosion -- a man-made disease -- is then established. It is, however, always preceded by infertility: the inefficient, overworked, dying soil is at once removed by the operations of Nature and hustled towards the ocean, so that new land can be created and the rugged individualists -- the bandits of agriculture -- whose cursed thirst for profit is at the root of the mischief can be given a second chance. Nature is anxious to make a new and better start and naturally has no patience with the inefficient. Perhaps when the time comes for a new essay in farming, mankind will have learnt a great lesson -- how to subordinate the profit motive to the sacred duty of handing over unimpaired to the next generation the heritage of a fertile soil. Soil erosion is nothing less than the outward and visible sign of the complete failure of a policy. The causes of this failure are to be found in ourselves.

The damage already done by soil erosion all over the world looked at in the mass is very great and is rapidly increasing. The regional contributions to this destruction, however, vary widely. In some areas like north-western Europe, where most of the agricultural land is under a permanent or temporary cover crop (in the shape of grass or leys), and there is still a large area of woodland and forest, soil erosion is a minor factor in agriculture. In other regions like parts of North America, Africa, Australia, and the countries bordering the Mediterranean, where extensive deforestation has been practiced and where almost uninterrupted cultivation has been the rule, large tracts of land once fertile have been almost completely destroyed.

The United States of America is perhaps the only country where anything in the nature of an accurate estimate of the damage done by erosion has been made. Theodore Roosevelt first warned the country as to its national importance. Then came the Great War with its high prices, which encouraged the wasteful exploitation of soil fertility on an unprecedented scale. A period of financial depression, a series of droughts and dust-storms, emphasized the urgency of the salvage of agriculture. During Franklin Roosevelt's Presidency, soil conservation has become a political and social problem of the first importance. In 1937 the condition and needs of the agricultural land of the U.S.A. were appraised. No less than 253,000,000 acres, or 61 per cent. of the total area under crops, had either been completely or partly destroyed or had lost most of its fertility. Only 161,000,000 acres, or 39 per cent. of the cultivated area, could be safely farmed by present methods. In less than a century the United States has therefore lost nearly three-fifths of its agricultural capital. If the whole of the potential resources of the country could be utilized and the best possible practices introduced everywhere, about 447,466,000 acres could be brought into use -- an area somewhat greater than the present crop land area of 415,334,931 acres. The position therefore is not hopeless. It will, however, be very difficult, very expensive, and very time-consuming to restore the vast areas of eroded land even if money is no object and large amounts of manure are used and green-manure crops are ploughed under.

The root of this soil erosion trouble in the United States is misuse of the land. The causes of this misuse include lack of individual knowledge of soil fertility on the part of the pioneers and their descendants; the traditional attitude which regarded the land as a source of profit; defects in farming systems, in tenancy, and finance -- most mortgages contain no provisions for the maintenance of fertility; instability of agricultural production (as carried out by millions of individuals), prices and income in contrast to industrial production carried on by a few large corporations. The need for maintaining a correct relation between industrial and agricultural production so that both can develop in full swing on the basis of abundance has only recently been understood. The country was so vast, its agricultural resources were so immense, that the profit seekers could operate undisturbed until soil fertility -- the country's capital -- began to vanish at an alarming rate. The present position, although disquieting, is not impossible. The resources of the Government are being called up to put the land in order. The magnitude of the effort, the mobilization of all available knowledge, the practical steps that are being taken to save what is left of the soil of the country and to help Nature to repair the damage already done are graphically set out in Soils and Men, the Year Book of the United States Department of Agriculture of 1938. This is perhaps the best local account of soil erosion which has yet appeared.

The rapid agricultural development of Africa was soon followed by soil erosion. In South Africa, a pastoral country, some of the best grazing areas are already semi-desert. The Orange Free State in 1879 was covered with rich grass, interspersed with reedy pools, where now only useless gullies are found. Towards the end of the nineteenth century it began to be realized all over South Africa that serious over-stocking was taking place. In 1918 the Drought Investigation Commission reported that soil erosion was extending rapidly over many parts of the Union, and that the eroded material was silting up reservoirs and rivers and causing a marked decrease in the underground water-supplies. The cause of erosion was considered to be the reduction of vegetal cover brought about by incorrect veld management -- the concentration of stock in kraals, over-stocking, and indiscriminate burning to obtain fresh autumn or winter grazing. In Basutoland, a normally well-watered country, soil erosion is now the most immediately pressing administrative problem. The pressure of population has brought large areas under the plough and has intensified over-stocking on the remaining pasture. In Kenya the soil erosion problem has become serious during the last three years, both in the native reserves and in the European areas. In the former, wealth depends on the possession of large flocks and herds; barter is carried on in terms of live stock; the bride price is almost universally paid in animals; numbers rather than quality are the rule. The natural consequence is over-stocking, over-grazing, and the destruction of the natural covering of the soil. Soil erosion is the inevitable result. In the European areas erosion is caused by long and continuous overcropping without the adoption of measures to prevent the loss of soil and to maintain the humus content. Locusts have of late been responsible for greatly accelerated erosion; examples are to be seen where the combined effect of locusts and goats has resulted in the loss of a foot of surface soil in a single rainy season.

The countries bordering the Mediterranean provide striking examples of soil erosion, accompanied by the formation of deserts which are considered to be due to one main cause -- the slow and continuous deforestation of the last 3,000 years. Originally well wooded, no forests are to be found in the Mediterranean region proper. Most of the original soil has been washed away by the sudden winter torrents. In North Africa the fertile cornfields, which existed in Roman times, are now desert. Ferrari in his book on woods and pastures refers to the changes in the soil and climate of Persia after its numerous and majestic parks were destroyed; the soil was transformed into sand; the climate became arid and suffocating; springs first decreased and then disappeared. Similar changes took place in Egypt when the forests were devastated; a decrease in rainfall and in soil fertility was accompanied by loss of uniformity in the climate. Palestine was once covered with valuable forests and fertile pastures and possessed a cool and moderate climate; to-day its mountains are denuded, its rivers are almost dry, and crop production is reduced to a minimum.

The above examples indicate the wide extent of soil erosion, the very serious damage that is being done, and the fundamental cause of the trouble -- misuse of the land. In dealing with the remedies which have been suggested and which are now being tried out, it is essential to envisage the real nature of the problem. It is nothing less than the repair of Nature's drainage system -- the river -- and of Nature's method of providing the country-side with a regular water-supply. The catchment area of the river is the natural unit in erosion control. In devising this control we must restore the efficiency of the catchment area as a drain and also as a natural storage of water. Once this is accomplished we shall hear very little about soil erosion.

Japan provides perhaps the best example of the control of soil erosion in a country with torrential rains, highly erodible soils, and a topography which renders the retention of the soil on steep slopes very difficult. Here erosion has been effectively held in check, by methods adopted regardless of cost, for the reason that the alternative to their execution would be national disaster. The great danger from soil erosion in Japan is the deposition of soil debris from the steep mountain slopes on the rice-fields below. The texture of the rice soils must be maintained so that the fields will hold water and allow of the minimum of through drainage. If such areas became covered with a deep layer of permeable soil, brought down by erosion from the hillsides, they would no longer hold water, and rice cultivation -- the mainstay of Japan's food-supply -- would be out of the question. For this reason the country has spent as much as ten times the capital value of eroding land on soil conservation work, mainly as an insurance for saving the valuable rice lands below. Thus in 1925 the Tokyo Forestry Board spent 453 yen (£45) per acre in anti-erosion measures on a forest area, valued at 40 yen per acre, in order to save rice-fields lower down valued at 240 to 300 yen per acre.

The dangers from erosion have been recognized in Japan for centuries and an exemplary technique has been developed for preventing them. It is now a definite part of national policy to maintain the upper regions of each catchment area under forest, as the most economical and effective method of controlling flood waters and insuring the production of rice in the valleys. For many years erosion control measures have formed an important item in the national budget.

According to Lowdermilk, erosion control in Japan is like a game of chess. The forest engineer, after studying his eroding valley, makes his first move, locating and building one or more check dams. He waits to see what Nature's response is. This determines the forest engineer's next move, which may be another dam or two, an increase in the former dam, or the construction of side retaining walls. After another pause for observation, the next move is made and so on until erosion is checkmated. The operation of natural forces, such as sedimentation and re-vegetation, are guided and used to the best advantage to keep down costs and to obtain practical results. No more is attempted than Nature has already done in the region. By 1919 nearly 2,000,000 hectares of protection forests were used in erosion control. These forest areas do more than control erosion. They help the soil to absorb and retain large volumes of rain-water and to release it slowly to the rivers and springs.

China, on the other hand, presents a very striking example of the evils which result from the inability of the administration to deal with the whole of a great drainage unit. On the slopes of the upper reaches of the Yellow River extensive soil erosion is constantly going on. Every year the river transports over 2,000 million tons of soil, sufficient to raise an area of 400 square miles by 5 feet. This is provided by the easily erodible loess soils of the upper reaches of the catchment area. The mud is deposited in the river bed lower down so that the embankments which contain the stream have constantly to be raised. Periodically the great river wins in this unequal contest and destructive inundations result. The labour expended on the embankments is lost because the nature of the erosion problem as a whole has not been grasped, and the area drained by the Yellow River has not been studied and dealt with as a single organism. The difficulty now is the over-population of the upper reaches of the catchment area, which prevents afforestation and laying down to grass. Had the Chinese maintained effective control of the upper reaches -- the real cause of the trouble -- the erosion problem in all probability would have been solved long ago at a lesser cost in labour than that which has been devoted to the embankment of the river. China, unfortunately, does not stand alone in this matter. A number of other rivers, like the Mississippi, are suffering from overwork, followed by periodical floods as the result of the growth of soil erosion in the upper reaches.

Although the damage done by uncontrolled erosion all over the world is very great, and the case for action needs no argument, nevertheless there is one factor on the credit side which has been overlooked in the recent literature. A considerable amount of new soil is being constantly produced by natural weathering agencies from the sub-soil and the parent rock. This when suitably conserved will soon recreate large stretches of valuable land. One of the best regions for the study of this question is the black cotton soil of Central India, which overlies the basalt. Here, although erosion is continuous, the soil does not often disappear altogether, for the reason that as the upper layers are removed by rain, fresh soil is re-formed from below. The large amount of earth so produced is well seen in the Gwalior State, where the late Ruler employed an irrigation officer, lent by the Government of India, to construct a number of embankments, each furnished with spillways, across many of the valleys, which had suffered so badly by uncontrolled rain-wash in the past that they appeared to have no soil at all, the scrub vegetation just managing to survive in the crevices of the bare rock. How great is the annual formation of new soil, even in such unpromising circumstances, must be seen to be believed. In a very few years, the construction of embankments was followed by stretches of fertile land which soon carried fine crops of wheat. A brief illustrated account of the work done by the late Maharaja of Gwalior would be of great value at the moment for introducing a much needed note of optimism in the consideration of this soil erosion problem. Things are not quite so hopeless as they are often made to appear.

Why is the forest such an effective agent in the prevention of soil erosion and in feeding the springs and rivers? The forest does two things: (1) the trees and undergrowth break up the rainfall into fine spray and the litter on the ground protects the soil from erosion; (2) the residues of the trees and animal life met with in all woodlands are converted into humus, which is then absorbed by the soil underneath, increasing its porosity and water-holding power. The soil cover and the soil humus together prevent erosion and at the same time store large volumes of water. These factors -- soil protection, soil porosity, and water retention -- conferred by the living forest cover, provide the key to the solution of the soil erosion problem. All other purely mechanical remedies such as terracing and drainage are secondary matters, although of course important in their proper place. The soil must have as much cover as possible; it must be well stocked with humus so that it can drink in and retain the rainfall. It follows, therefore, that in the absence of trees there must be a grass cover, some cover-crop, and ample provision for keeping up the supply of humus. Each field so provided suffers little or no erosion. This confirms the view of Williams (Timiriasev Academy, Moscow) who, before erosion became important in the Soviet Union, advanced an hypothesis that the decay of past civilizations was due to a decline in soil fertility, consequent on the destruction of the soil's crumb structure when the increasing demands of civilization necessitated the wholesale ploughing up of grassland. Williams regarded grass as the basis of all agricultural land utilization and the soil's chief weapon against the plundering instincts of humanity. His views are exerting a marked influence on soil conservation policy in the U.S.S.R. and indeed apply to many other countries.

Grass is a valuable factor in the correct design and construction of surface drains. Whenever possible these should be wide, very shallow, and completely grassed over. The run-off then drains away as a thin sheet of clear water, leaving all the soil particles behind. The grass is thereby automatically manured and yields abundant fodder. This simple device was put into practice at the Shahjahanpur Sugar Experiment Station in India. The earth service roads and paths were excavated so that the level was a few inches below that of the cultivated area. They were then grassed over, becoming very effective drains in the rainy season, carrying off the excess rainfall as clear water without any loss of soil.

If we regard erosion as the natural consequence of improper methods of agriculture, and the catchment area of the river as the natural unit for the application of soil conservation methods, the various remedies available fall into their proper place. The upper reaches of each river system must be afforested; cover crops including grass and leys must be used to protect the arable surface whenever possible; the humus content of the soil must be increased and the crumb structure restored so that each field can drink in its own rainfall; over-stocking and over-grazing must be prevented; simple mechanical methods for conserving the soil and regulating the run-off, like terracing, contour cultivation and contour drains, must be utilized. There is, of course, no single anti-erosion device which can be universally adopted. The problem must, in the nature of things, be a local one. Nevertheless, certain guiding principles exist which apply everywhere. First and foremost is the restoration and maintenance of soil fertility, so that each acre of the catchment area can do its duty by absorbing its share of the rainfall.

The Formation of Alkali Lands

When the land is continuously deprived of oxygen the plant is soon unable to make use of it: a condition of permanent infertility results.

In many parts of the tropics and sub-tropics agriculture is interfered with by accumulations of soluble salts composed of various mixtures of the sulphate, chloride, and carbonate of sodium. Such areas are known as alkali lands. When the alkali phase is still in the mild or incipient stage, crop production becomes difficult and care has to be taken to prevent matters from getting worse. When the condition is fully established, the soil dies; crop production is then out of the question. Alkali lands are common in Central Asia, India, Persia, Iraq, Egypt, North Africa, and the United States.

At one period it was supposed that alkali soils were the natural consequences of a light rainfall, insufficient to wash out of the land the salts which always form in it by progressive weathering of the rock powder of which all soils largely consist. Hence alkali lands were considered to be a natural feature of arid tracts, such as parts of north-west India, Iraq, and northern Africa, where the rainfall is very small. Such ideas on the origin and occurrence of alkali lands do not correspond with the facts and are quite misleading. The rainfall of the Province of Oudh, in India, for example, where large stretches of alkali lands naturally occur, is certainly adequate to dissolve the comparatively small quantities of soluble salts found in these infertile areas, if their removal were a question of sufficient water only. In North Bihar the average rainfall, in the sub-montane tracts where large alkali patches are common, is about 50 to 60 inches a year. Arid conditions, therefore, are not essential for the production of alkali soils; heavy rainfall does not always remove them. What is a necessary condition is impermeability. In India whenever the land loses its porosity, by the constant surface irrigation of stiff soils with a tendency to impermeability, by the accumulation of stagnant subsoil water, or through some interference with the surface drainage, alkali salts sooner or later appear. Almost any agency, even over-cultivation and over-stimulation by means of artificial manures, both of which oxidize the organic matter and slowly destroy the crumb structure, will produce alkali land. In the neighbourhood of Pusa in North Bihar, old roads and the sites of bamboo clumps and of certain trees such as the tamarind (Tamarindus indica L.) and the pipul (Ficus religiosa L.), always give rise to alkali patches when they are brought into cultivation. The densely packed soil of such areas invariably shows the bluish-green markings which are associated with the activities of those soil organisms which live in badly aerated soils without a supply of free oxygen. A few inches below the alkali patches, which occur on the stiff loess soils of the Quetta Valley, similar bluish-green and brown markings always occur. In the alkali zone in North Bihar, wells have always to be left open to the air, otherwise the water is contaminated by sulphuretted hydrogen, thereby indicating a well-marked reductive phase in the deeper layers. In a sub-soil drainage experiment on the black soils of the Nira valley in Bombay where perennial irrigation was followed by the formation of alkali land, Mann and Tamhane found that the salt water which ran out of these drains soon smelt strongly of sulphuretted hydrogen, and a white deposit of sulphur was formed at the mouth of each drain, proving how strong were the reducing actions in this soil. Here the reductive phase in alkali formation was unconsciously demonstrated in an area where alkali salts were unknown until the land was water-logged by over-irrigation and the oxygen-supply of the soil was restricted.

The view that the origin of alkali land is bound up with defective soil aeration is supported by the recent work on the origin of saltwater lakes in Siberia. In Lake Szira-Kul, between Bateni and the mountain range of Kizill Kaya, Ossendowski observed in the black ooze taken from the bottom of the lake and in the water a certain distance from the surface an immense network of colonies of sulphur bacilli which gave off large quantities of sulphuretted hydrogen and so destroyed practically all the fish in this lake. The great water basins in Central Asia are being metamorphosed in a similar way into useless reservoirs of salt water, smelling strongly of hydrogen sulphide. In the limans near Odessa and in portions of the Black Sea, a similar process is taking place. The fish, sensing the change, are slowly leaving this sea as the layers of water, poisoned by sulphuretted hydrogen, are gradually rising towards the surface. The death of the lakes scattered over the immense plains of Asia and the destruction of the impermeable soils of this continent from alkali salt formation are both due to the same primary cause -- intense oxygen starvation. Often this oxygen starvation occurs naturally; in other cases it follows perennial irrigation.

The stages in the development of the alkali condition are somewhat as follows. The first condition is an impermeable soil. Such soils -- the usar plains of northern India for example -- occur naturally where the climatic conditions favour those biological and physical factors which destroy the soil structure by disintegrating the compound particles into their ultimate units. These latter are so extremely minute and so uniform in size that they form with water a mixture possessing some of the properties of colloids which, when dry, pack into a hard dry mass, practically impermeable to water and very difficult to break up. Such soils are very old. They have always been impermeable and have never come into cultivation.

In addition to the alkali tracts which occur naturally a number are in course of formation as the result of errors in soil management, the chief of which are:

(a) The excessive use of irrigation water. This gradually destroys the binding power of the organic cementing matter which glues the soil particles together, and displaces the soil air. Anaerobic changes, indicated by blue and brownish markings, first occur in the lower layers and finally lead to the death of the soil. It is this slow destruction of the living soil that must be prevented if the existing schemes of perennial irrigation are to survive. The process is taking place before our eyes to-day in the Canal Colonies of India where irrigation is loosely controlled.

(b) Over-cultivation without due attention to the replenishment of humus. In those continental areas like the Indo-Gangetic plain, where the risk of alkali is greatest, the normal soils contain only a small reserve of humus, because the biological processes which consume organic matter are very intense at certain seasons due to sudden changes from low to very high temperatures and from intensely dry weather to periods of moist tropical conditions. Accumulations of organic matter such as occur in temperate zones are impossible. There is, therefore, a very small margin of safety. The slightest errors in soil management will not only destroy the small reserve of humus in the soil but also the organic cement on which the compound soil particles and the crumb structure depend.

The result is impermeability, the first stage in the formation of alkali salts.

(c) The use of artificial manures, particularly sulphate of ammonia. The presence of additional combined nitrogen in an easily assimilable form stimulates the growth of fungi and other organisms which, in the search for the organic matter needed for energy and for building up microbial tissue, use up first the reserve of soil humus and then the more resistant organic matter which cements the soil particles. Ordinarily this glue is not affected by the processes going on in a normally cultivated soil, but it cannot withstand the same processes when stimulated by dressings of artificial manures.

Alkali land therefore starts with a soil in which the oxygen-supply is permanently cut off. Matters then go from bad to worse very rapidly. All the oxidation factors which are essential for maintaining a healthy soil cease. A new soil flora -- composed of anaerobic organisms which obtain their oxygen from the substratum -- is established. A reduction phase ensues. The easiest source of oxygen -- the nitrates -- is soon exhausted. The organic matter then undergoes anaerobic fermentation. Sulphuretted hydrogen is produced as the soil dies, just as in the lakes of Central Asia. The final result of the chemical changes that take place is the accumulation of the soluble salts of alkali land -- the sulphate, chloride, and carbonate of sodium. When these salts are present in injurious amounts they appear on the surface in the form of snow-white and brownish-black incrustations. The former (white alkali) consists largely of the sulphate and chloride of sodium, and the latter (the dreaded black alkali) contains sodium carbonate in addition and owes its dark colour to the fact that this salt is able to dissolve the organic matter in the soil and produce physical conditions which render drainage impossible. According to Hilgard, sodium carbonate is formed from the sulphate and chloride in the presence of carbon dioxide and water. The action is reversed in the presence of oxygen. Subsequent investigations have modified this view and have shown that the formation of sodium carbonate in soil takes place in stages. The appearance of this salt always marks the end of the chapter. The soil is dead. Reclamation then becomes difficult on account of the physical conditions set up by these alkali salts and the dissolved organic matter.

The occurrence of alkali land, as would be expected from its origin, is extremely irregular. When ordinary alluvial soils like those of the Punjab and Sind are brought under perennial irrigation, small patches of alkali first appear where the soil is heavy; on stiffer areas the patches are large and tend to run together. On open permeable stretches, on the other hand, there is no alkali. In tracts like the Western Districts of the United Provinces, where irrigation has been the rule for a long period, zones of well-aerated land carrying fine irrigated crops occur alongside the barren alkali tracts. Iraq also furnishes interesting examples of the connexion between alkali and poor soil aeration. Intensive cultivation under irrigation is only met with in that country where the soils are permeable and the natural drainage is good. Where the drainage and aeration are poor, the alkali condition at once becomes acute. There are, of course, a number of irrigation schemes, such as the staircase cultivation of the Hunzas in northwest India and of Peru, where the land has been continually watered from time immemorial without any development of alkali salts. In Italy and Switzerland perennial irrigation has been practiced for long periods without harm to the soil. In all such cases, however, careful attention has been paid to drainage and aeration and to the maintenance of humus; the soil processes have been confined by Nature or by man to the oxidative phase; the cement of the compound particles has been protected by keeping up a sufficiency of organic matter.

Every possible gradation in alkali land is met with. Minute quantities of alkali salts in the soil have no injurious effect on crops or on the soil organisms. It is only when the proportion increases beyond a certain limit that they first interfere with growth and finally prevent it altogether. Leguminous crops are particularly sensitive to alkali especially when this contains carbonate of soda. The action of alkali salts on the plant is a physical one and depends on the osmotic pressure of solutions, which increases with the amount of the dissolved substance. For water to pass readily from the soil into the roots of plants, the osmotic pressure of the cells of the root must be considerably greater than that of the soil solution outside. If the soil solution became stronger than that of the cells, water would pass backwards from the roots to the soil and the crops would dry up. This state of affairs naturally occurs when the soil becomes charged with alkali salts beyond a certain point. The crops are then unable to take up water and death results. The roots behave like a plump strawberry when placed in a strong solution of sugar. Like the strawberry they shrink in size because they have lost water to the stronger solution outside. Too much salt in the water therefore makes irrigation water useless and destroys the canal as a commercial proposition.

The reaction of the crop to the first stages in alkali production is interesting. For twenty years at Pusa and eight years in the Quetta Valley I had to farm land, some of which hovered, as it were, on the verge of alkali. The first indication of the condition is a darkening of the foliage and the slowing down of growth. Attention to soil aeration, to the supply of organic matter, and to the use of deep-rooting crops like lucerne and pigeon pea, which break up the sub-soil, soon sets matters right. Disregard of Nature's danger signals, however, leads to trouble -- a definite alkali patch is formed. When cotton is grown under canal irrigation on the alluvial soils of the Punjab, the reaction of the plant to incipient alkali is first shown by the failure to set seed, on account of the fact that the anther, the most sensitive portion of the flower, fails to function and to liberate its pollen. The cotton plant naturally finds it difficult to obtain from mild alkali soil all the water it needs -- this shortage is instantly reflected in the breakdown of the floral mechanism.

The theory of the reclamation of alkali land is very simple. All that is needed, after treating the soil with sufficient gypsum (which transforms the sodium clays into calcium clays), is to wash out the soluble salts, to add organic matter, and then to farm the land properly. Such reclaimed soils are then exceedingly fertile and remain so. If sufficient water is available it is sometimes possible to reclaim alkali soils by washing only. I once confirmed this. The berm of a raised water channel at the Quetta Experiment Station was faced with rather heavy soil from an alkali patch. The constant passage of the irrigation water down the water channel soon removed the alkali salts. This soil then produced some of the heaviest crops of grass I have ever seen in the tropics. When, however, the attempt is made to reclaim alkali areas on a field scale, by flooding and draining, difficulties at once arise unless steps are taken first to replace all the sodium in the soil complex by calcium and then to prevent the further formation of sodium clays. Even when these reclamation methods succeed, the cost is always considerable; it soon becomes prohibitive; the game is not worth the candle. The removal of the alkali salts is only the first step; large quantities of organic matter are then needed; adequate soil aeration must be provided; the greatest care must be taken to preserve these reclaimed soils and to see that no reversion to the alkali condition occurs. It is exceedingly easy under canal irrigation to create alkali salts on certain areas. It is exceedingly difficult to reverse the process and to transform alkali land back again into a fertile soil.

Nature has provided, in the shape of alkali salts, a very effective censorship for all schemes of perennial irrigation. The conquest of the desert, by means of the canal, by no means depends on the mere provision of water and arrangements for the periodical flooding of the surface. This is only one of the factors of the problem. The water must be used in such a manner and the soil management must be such that the fertility of the soil is maintained intact. There is obviously no point in creating, at vast expense, a Canal Colony and producing crops for a generation or two, followed by a desert of alkali land. Such an achievement merely provides another example of agricultural banditry. It must always be remembered that the ancient irrigators never developed any efficient method of perennial irrigation, but were content with the basin system, a device by which irrigation and soil aeration can be combined. (The land is embanked; watered once; when dry enough it is cultivated and sown. In this way water can be provided without any interference with soil aeration.) In his studies on irrigation and drainage, King concludes an interesting discussion of this question in the following words, which deserve the fullest consideration on the part of the irrigation authorities all over the world:


Soil Erosion

Gorrie, R. M. 'The Problem of Soil Erosion in the British Empire, with special reference to India', Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, lxxxvi, 1938, p. 901.

Howard, Sir Albert. 'A Note on the Problem of Soil Erosion', Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, lxxxvi, 1938, p. 926.

Jacks, G. V., and Whyte, R. O. Erosion and Soil Conservation, Bulletin 25, Imperial Bureau of Pastures and Forage Crops, Aberystwyth, 1938.

-- The Rape of the Earth: A World Survey of Soil Erosion, London, 1939.

Soils and Men, Year Book of Agriculture, 1938, U.S. Dept. of Agr., Washington, D.C., 1938.

Alkali Soils

Hilgard, E. W. Soils, New York, 1906.

Howard, A. Crop Production in India, Oxford University Press, 1924.

King, F. H. Irrigation and Drainage, London, 1900.

Ossendowski, F. Man and Mystery in Asia, London, 1924.

Russell, Sir John. Soil Conditions and Plant Growth, London, 1937.

Next: 11. The Retreat of the Crop and the Animal before the Parasite

Back to Contents

To Albert Howard review and index

Back to Small Farms Library index

Community development | Rural development
City farms | Organic gardening | Composting | Small farms | Biofuel | Solar box cookers
Trees, soil and water | Seeds of the world | Appropriate technology | Project vehicles

Home | What people are saying about us | About Handmade Projects 
Projects | Internet | Schools projects | Sitemap | Site Search | Donations |